Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

CONRAD: The Secret Sharer

In The Secret Sharer we never learn the name of the character telling the story. For convenience let’s just call him Conrad. Conrad’s story is about a young sailor in command of his first ship. Since this was his first command he felt a little awkward. This is normal and to be expected. But Conrad didn’t just feel awkward – he felt like a stranger on his own ship. Not only that, he says “if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.” Here we have a man who is outwardly in command of the whole ship but inwardly is unsure of himself and who he is.

On this voyage we’ll find out what he’s made of. In that sense this is a coming of age story. Conrad says “I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” Many a man considers himself brave until circumstances prove him to be a coward at heart. And life at sea quickly shows a man his true character. Sailors often share young Conrad’s enthusiasm for the nautical life: “I rejoiced in the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of that untempted life presenting no disquieting problems, invested with an elementary moral beauty by the absolute straightforwardness of its appeal and by the singleness of its purpose.”

But it doesn’t take long to find out that there isn’t great security at sea and neither is one spared the “disquieting problems” everyone encounters while living ashore. Quite the opposite. During his first night on watch Conrad discovers a strange man hanging on to the ship’s ladder. Come to find out the man is a fugitive from another ship. His name is Leggatt and he openly admits he killed a shipmate. As Leggatt puts it “He was one of those creatures that are just simmering all the time with a silly sort of wickedness. Miserable devils that have no business to live at all.” So Leggatt killed him. Suddenly Conrad is faced with a life-changing question: should I give refuge to a murderer or turn him back over to the captain of his own ship? The decision he makes will determine not only Leggatt’s future but also Conrad’s own fate.

The story’s title gives away the decision made by Conrad to hide Leggatt in the captain’s cabin. But it may also signify something far deeper: sharing the guilt of murder. Leggatt doesn’t want to escape his punishment. He confides that he’ll willingly bear “The ‘brand of Cain’…I was ready enough to go off wandering on the face of the earth – and that was price enough to pay for an Abel of that sort.” In other words Leggatt has killed a man and is prepared to wander the earth like another Cain. Conrad hasn’t killed a man but he has harbored a murderer. In this sense they both share in the guilt of the crime. No one else knows what has happened, hence the name “The Secret Sharer.”

Make no mistake – this is not an easy punishment to bear. Leggatt admits as much when he says “There’s nothing of a boy’s tale in this. But there’s nothing else for it. I want no more.” He’s destined to wander parts of the earth where he will remain a stranger forever. A white man set loose on an island in the Far East. Conrad, on the other hand, has a different destiny: to wander the seas. Conrad muses: “I was a total stranger to the ship. I did not know her…How was she to be handled?” He had become a man, but at what cost? For the rest of his days he would himself be a stranger to the earth and a wanderer too, sharing the mark of Cain as he travels the seas. And the sea can be stark and relentless, changing the whole course of life - just like old Bible stories.

-- RDP


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